Grammar Wednesday


I’m offering this lesson only because I’ve been noticing that my students (and a good number of other people I encounter in my day-to-day existence) don’t understand how to use them correctly.

A gerund is the -ing form of a verb that functions as a noun; that’s all it is:

Swimming is good exercise.

Wearing a trench coat and fedora makes you a menacing character.

(and my favorite)

Slapping a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on the back of your gas-guzzling SUV during a war for oil makes you look like an asshole.

All of these words LOOK like verbs but, if you look closely, you’ll see that they’re actually functioning as nouns. In these cases, the gerunds are all the subjects of the sentences.

The trouble (for me, anyway) comes when people try to use gerunds as direct objects. More often than not, I’ll hear things like:

I appreciate you taking the time to help me out with this.

The incident ended with me having to go to court.

In these cases, the gerund is acting as the direct object. In the first sentence, I’m not appreciating YOU, I’m appreciating that you took time to help me out. The pronoun needs to be changed to the possessive your. In the second sentence, the incident didn’t end with ME, it ended with my having to go to court.

My English Grammar for Dummies book explains it about as well as I’ve ever heard it explained:

Why possessive? Here’s the reasoning. If you put a possessive pronoun in front of the noun, the noun is the main idea, therefore:

My parents object to the taking of the car. They don’t object to me.

(the original sentence was “Just because I once got a speeding ticket, my parents object to my taking the car for even short drives.”)

This site has a lovely explanation of the gerund / possessive pronoun relationship. I particularly like this bit:

…the failure to use the possessive case with the gerund can give a sentence a meaning altogether different from what the writer actually intends.

Consider these two sentences:

Whitaker did not like the woman standing in front of him at the parade.

Whitaker did not like the woman’s standing in front of him at the parade.

In the first sentence, “standing” is an adjective (a participle, to be specific) modifying “woman.” We call “standing in front of him at the parade” a participial phrase. The sentence says that Whitaker did not like the woman who was standing in front of him at the parade. The participial phrase answers the question “which woman?” It identifies her as “the standing woman” and states that she is the person whom Whitaker did not like.

In the second sentence, “standing” is a noun–a gerund. This sentence says that Whitaker did not like the fact that someone (the “woman”) was standing in front of him at the parade. Whitaker probably did not know the woman at all. The notion of his liking or disliking her has nothing whatsoever to do with the idea that the sentence intends to convey. It was the *standing in front of him* that Whitaker did not like–the *woman’s* standing. The true meaning of the sentence–the fact that Whitaker did not like having someone stand in front of him at the parade–hinges entirely on the use of the possessive case of the word “woman.”

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!!



Filed under Grammar

8 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Awesome.
    During my single semester as a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Linguistics, in my Syntax class I had a final exam of one question: Explain the ambiguity in the sentence “Flying planes can be dangerous.”

  2. Saying that you have to use a possessive because it’s a noun isn’t exactly true. The gerund has properties of both a noun and a verb. In “there is no resisting him,” “no” indicates that “resisting” is a noun, but the object “him” means it is a verb.

    Whether to use the possessive or not depends on what you are stressing.
    “but I can’t see me letting Harold C. condense it” – Flannery O’Connor
    Here the emphasis is on “me”, and the following material is a complementizing phrase.

    There are also times when using the possessive just doesn’t work:
    “to find out what is responsible for my feet swelling” – Flannery O’Connor
    “We have had very few cases of luggage being lost.”

  3. I always need a brush up on gerunds! Thanks!

  4. thanks, mrs. chili! that’s definitely one that bugs me.

    can you do a lay/lie grammar wednesday someday? i always say the wrong one and my roommate (also a stanford english major – aren’t we a pair?) always goes, “were you laying eggs?” 😛

  5. I dunno. Using gerunds (or infinitives, for that matter) as objects of prepositions almost always sounds ugly anyway. My solution: avoid it! 😀

    PS: Why does “heroes” look right and “zeroes” look wrong to me?

  6. I am not the brightest bulb in the room when it comes to gerunds or anything else beyond the basics. Thanks for the lesson.

  7. M-Dawg

    As usual, another amazing grammar lesson.

    Keep it up. 🙂

  8. Pingback: Grammar Wednesday « A Teacher’s Education

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